Pema Chödrön is best known to lay readers for her two national bestsellers When Things Fall Apart and The Wisdom of No Escape. Buddhist students know her as resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners. Here, Pema Chödrön explains tonglen, a cornerstone Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice for generating compassion in the world.
Each of us has a soft spot: the place in our experience where we feel vulnerable and tender. This soft spot is inherent in appreciation and love, and it is equally inherent in pain. Often, when we feel that soft spot, it's quickly followed by a feeling of fear and an involuntary, habitual tendency to close down. This is the tendency of all living things: to avoid pain and to cling to pleasure. In practice, however, covering up the soft spot means shutting down against our life experience. Then we tend to narrow down into a solid feeling of self against other.
One very powerful and effective way to work with this tendency to push away pain and hold on to pleasure is the practice of tonglen. Tonglen is a Tibetan word that literally means ascending and taking. The practice originated in India and came to Tibet in the 11th century. In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, lovingkindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness.
In this practice, it's not uncommon to find yourself blocked, because you come face to face with your own fear, resistance, or whatever your personal stuckness happens to be at that moment. At that point, you can change the focus and do tonglen for yourself and for millions of others just like you who, at that very moment, are feeling exactly the same misery.
I particularly like to encourage tonglen on the spot. For example, you're walking down the street and you see the pain of another human being. On-the-spot tonglen means that you don't just rush by; you actually breathe in with the wish that this person could be free of suffering, and send them out some kind of good heart or well-being. If seeing that other person's pain brings up your fear or anger or confusion, which often happens, just start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who are stuck in the very same way.
When you do tonglen on the spot, you simply breathe in and breathe out, taking in pain and sending out spaciousness and relief. When you do tonglen as a formal practice, it has four stages:
This is to say that tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, gradually, over time, your compassion naturally expands—and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, at your own pace, you'll be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others, even in what used to seem like impossible situations.